May 08, 2004

Sexing Rivka

Recently, Rivka at Respectful of Otters (who seems to have become our subject of the week) expressed puzzlement, if not annoyance, because "[i]n the last few weeks, two different men have linked approvingly to Respectful of Otters - using male pronouns to refer to me". In exploring the question of whether she "writes like a man", she quotes a description of genderlects from an article by Paolo Rossetti, suggesting that

"The male style is characterized by adversiality - put-downs, strong, often contentious assertions, lengthy and/or frequent postings, self-promotion, and sarcasm"; while the female style, in contrast, is characterized by "supportiveness and attenuation" with expressions of appreciation, thanking, and community-building; as well as apologizing, expressing doubt, asking questions, and contributing ideas in the form of suggestions."

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a lively controversy over the question of whether men and women use language differently, what the differences might be, and how and why the differences (if they exist) arise. A different perspective was expressed a few years ago in an article by Penny Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet, the authors of a 2003 book entitled "Language and Gender":

Women's language has been said to reflect their (our) conservatism, prestige consciousness, upward mobility, insecurity, deference, nurturance, emotional expressivity, connectedness, sensitivity to others, solidarity. And men's language is heard as evincing their toughness, lack of affect, competitiveness, independence, competence, hierarchy, control [...] When we recombine all these abstractions, we really do not know what we have. Certainly we don't seem to find real women and men as sums of the characteristics attributed to them.

With respect to the real person Rivka, my experience of guessing her sex from her writing went like this. When I first read her blog, I assumed that it was written by a woman, not because of her name, but because of... well, I don't know what. It just seemed that way to me. So the first time that I posted something that featured her weblog, I used female pronouns. Then it occurred to me that I might be wrong -- after all, I know quite a few men with names ending in "-a", like "Sasha" and "Andrea". So I went back and looked for any clues in what she had written. I read all the Otters archives, and I concluded that really, I couldn't tell. So I changed what I'd written to avoid gendered references to her, and I've maintained the same practice since. I'm glad to know that she's a woman, so that I can reference her stuff in the future without avoiding pronouns! I actually considered emailing her to find out whether she was he or she, and decided that it would be intrusive -- was that a male response, I wonder? I guess it says something about my personality, at least.

I'm not at all an expert on the "genderlect" literature, but I've read some of it and learned about some other work from colloquia and talks at conferences., and I've tried to put it all together so as to be able to teach it in introductory courses. Here's a quick summary, taken from my lecture notes for an intro linguistics course, of published claims about gender differences in speech and language (in contemporary western societies):

Female speech tends to be evaluated as more "correct" or more "prestigious", less slangy, etc. Men are in general more likely than women to use socially-stigmatized forms (like "ain't" or g-dropping in English). On the other hand, women are usually in the lead in changes in pronunciation, typically producing new pronunciations sooner, more often, and in more extreme ways than men. Women's speech has been said to be more polite, more redundant, more formal, more clearly pronounced, and more elaborated or complex, while men's speech is less polite, more elliptical, more informal, less clearly pronounced, and simpler.

In terms of conversational patterns, it has been observed or claimed that women use more verbal "support indicators" (like mm-hmm) than men do; that men interrupt women more than than they interrupt other men, and more than women interrupt either men or other women; that women express uncertainty and hesitancy more than men; and that (at least in single-sex interactions) males are more likely to give direct orders than females are.

However, for nearly all of these claimed differences, there are some contradictory findings. I'll give some examples in later posts.

Because of the enormous effects of social and interpersonal context on all the variables involved, and the enormous range of individual differences among people of all sexes, both in general and in their response to differing circumstances, and the strong effect of social stereotypes on experimenters' interpretations as well as on their subjects' behavior, this is an especially difficult kind of thing to study. People and social circumstances are variable and complicated, and it's clear that you need to look at the details in order to predict behavioral tendencies, much less individual behavior.

As for the explanation of the (claimed) differences, you can take your pick of biological "evolutionary psychology" theories (or "just so stories", as some argue), and two classes of culture-based theories, generally known as difference theories and dominance theories.

According to difference theories (sometimes called two-culture theories), men and women inhabit different cultural (and therefore linguistic) worlds. To quote from the preface to Deborah Tannen's 1990 popularization You just don't understand, "boys and girls grow up in what are essentially different cultures, so talk between women and men is cross-cultural communication."

According to dominance theories, men and women inhabit the same cultural and linguistic world, in which power and status are distributed unequally, and are expressed by linguistic as well as other cultural markers. In principle, women and men have access to the same set of linguistic and conversational devices, and use them for the same purposes. Apparent differences in usage reflect differences in status and in goals.

The basic ideas of the two-culture theory go back at least to the early 1980's, beginning with John Gumperz's research on misunderstandings in intercultural communication involving immigrants, and Marjorie Goodwin's studies of conversational interaction among African-American children in Philadelphia. The most influential recent exponent of the theory has been Deborah Tannen.

In Tannen's version, women use language to achieve intimacy, resulting in what she calls "rapport talk." For women, "talk is the glue that holds relationships together," and so conversations are "negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus." Men, on the other hand, use language to convey information, resulting in what Tannen calls "report talk." Because men maintain relationships through other activities, conversation for them becomes a negotiation for status in which each participant attempts to establish or improve his place in a hierarchical social order.

Is this true? Many people have found Tannen's characterizations true to life, while other have criticized her for promoting social stereotypes. Of course, both views might be correct. More on this later.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 8, 2004 07:13 PM